Papers by Martin Thomson

The Harmful Consequences of Postel’s Maxim

Postel’s Maxim of protocol design (also known as the Robustness Principle or the Internet Engineering Principle) is Be liberal in what you accept, conservative in what you send. It was first stated as such (by Jon Postel) in the 1979 and 1980 specifications (e.g. RFC 760) of the protocol that we now call IPv4. [1] It’s been tremendously influential, for instance quoted as an axiom in Tim Berners-Lee’s design principles for the Web [2] but has also come in for a fair bit of criticism [3] [4]. (An expanded version of the principle, in RFC 1122, anticipates many of these criticisms and is well worth reading if you haven’t.) Now we have an Internet-Draft arguing that it is fatally flawed:

… there are negative long-term consequences to interoperability if an implementation applies Postel’s advice. Correcting the problems caused by divergent behavior in implementations can be difficult or impossible.

and arguing that instead

Protocol designs and implementations should be maximally strict.

Generating fatal errors for what would otherwise be a minor or recoverable error is preferred, especially if there is any risk that the error represents an implementation flaw. A fatal error provides excellent motivation for addressing problems.

The primary function of a specification is to proscribe behavior in the interest of interoperability.

This is the first iteration of an Internet-Draft, so it’s not intended to be done, so rather than express an opinion as such, I want to put forward some examples of real-world situations from the last couple decades of Internet protocol design that the author may or may not have considered, and ask how he feels they should be / have been handled. I also invite readers to suggest further examples where strictness, security, upward compatibility, incremental deployment, ergonomics, and so on may be in tension.

  • The original IP and TCP (v4) specifications left a number of bits reserved in their respective packet headers. In 2001 the ECN specification gave meaning to some of those bits. It was almost immediately discovered that many intermediate routers would silently discard packets with the ECN bits set; in consequence, fourteen years later ECN is still quite rarely used, even though there are far fewer such routers than there were in 2001. [5] [6]

  • Despite the inclusion of a protocol version number in SSL/TLS, and a clear specification of how servers were supposed to react to clients offering a newer protocol than they supported, servers that drop connections from too-new clients are historically quite common, so until quite recently Web browsers would retry such connections with an older protocol version. This enables a man-in-the-middle to force negotiation of an old, possibly insecure version, even if both sides support something better. [7] [8] [9] Similar to the ECN situation, this problem was originally noticed in 2001 and continues to be an issue in 2015.

  • Cryptographic protocols (such as TLS) can be subverted—and I mean complete breach of confidentiality subverted—if they reveal why a message failed to decrypt, or how long it took to decrypt / fail to decrypt a message, to an attacker that can forge messages. [10] [11] To close these holes it may be necessary to run every message through the complete decryption process even if you already know it’s going to fail.

  • In the interest of permitting future extensions, HTML5 [12] and CSS [13] take pains to specify exact error recovery behavior; the idea is that older software will predictably ignore stuff it doesn’t understand, so that authors can be sure of how their websites will look in browsers that both do and don’t implement each shiny new feature. However, this means you can predict how the CSS parser will parse HTML (and vice versa). And in conjunction with the general unreliability of MIME types it means you used to be able to exploit that to extract information from a document you shouldn’t be able to read. [14] (Browsers fixed this by becoming pickier about MIME types.)